Those familiar with my dietary and exercise habits know that preventative health care is not a high priority. An exception, though, is an annual rite of late autumn, the flu shot.
It’s likely quicker to get the deed done on a routine visit to the doctor, but I opt for Shoppers Drug Mart, as they give you a handy printed card that certifies that the shot has indeed been shot.
For a priest called to visit the sick in hospital or a nursing home, it is handy to have evidence on hand if, as sometimes happens, the wards are closed to those who have not been inoculated.
The wait at Shoppers is about 10 minutes, and then you are required to remain in the store for an additional 15 minutes to ensure no immediate adverse reaction has taken hold. So my half hour in Shoppers every November is likely the longest time I ever spend there, which means I notice things I might not otherwise. This time it was the sexual revolution. I had noticed that elsewhere; it was in Shoppers that I noticed it anew.
I awaited my shot in a seating area immediately in front of a prominent end-of-the-aisle retail display for Plan B, the “contraceptive” that sometimes isn’t, as it can prevent an already fertilized egg from implantation in the womb. The technical term for that is abortifacient, which many oral contraceptives are too. They do not prevent conception but rather prevent conception from following its natural course.
In any case, there I was, faced with multiple shelves stocked with Plan B, looking like those stacks of Rice Krispies in the supermarket when they go on sale. Beside me was a mother with her son, about seven years old I would guess. I doubt very much the boy has had much talk about sex with his parents just yet, but when it comes time for him to be told about such matters, will he already know that if Plan A is virtue and responsibility, there is always Plan B down at Shoppers?
Plan B used to be available only behind the counter. No prescription necessary, but the pharmacist provided it upon request. That’s still the case in Saskatchewan and Quebec, but elsewhere it can be bought alongside antacids and paper towels. The normality of it all is no longer surprising, but then it is. Just waiting for a flu shot with a young boy, and what the commercial culture has to offer us are emergency abortifacients.
I discovered, after the shot was administered and I was free to roam for my 15 minutes, that Shoppers has a little literature section. Not just magazines, but also books. Who knew that as bookstores were struggling across the Dominion, Shoppers was picking up the slack? My eye was caught, though, by the magazine rack, where side by each – as they say in Newfoundland – was a special edition of Time magazine dedicated to the late Hugh Hefner, and a special edition of People, dedicated the 70th wedding anniversary this month of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. It’s fair to say that Hefner never really had a Plan B; his philosophy was that Plan B was the original plan all along.
The cad and the queen. The latter ruled the realm, but the former ruled the culture. Not because he peddled porn. So did many others. But he argued that it was a good thing, and built a seductive philosophy around it. The philosophy argued explicitly against thinking of this world as a “vale of tears” – a phrase taken from the traditional Catholic hymn in honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, Hail Holy Queen. No, it was the great adult playground, where the wealthy boys could buy whatever they wanted.
The philosophy of self-indulgence rather than self-sacrifice runs counter the entire history of philosophical and theological reflection. It did prove rather popular for an affluent society in the age of contraception, which made the living the Playboy philosophy much easier. The Playboy philosophy always requires a Plan B, a way to quickly get rid of the problem, the child, or the woman herself.
Hefner or the Queen? At Shoppers they were just various choices, no doubt juxtaposed by accident. But they do represent different paths, and different allegiances. Not as between mammon and monarchy, but as between the indulgent self and the sacrificial self.
When Hefner died in September, I didn’t bother to comment. There is some (limited) wisdom in not speaking ill of the dead, especially those freshly so. And about Hefner, there is nothing but ill to say. But more than 10 years ago, when he was very much alive, I wrote the following, taken from the National Post archives, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. And just like the magazine rack at Shoppers, he shares that with Queen Elizabeth.
20th April 2006
When Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born to the Duke and Duchess of York on April 21, 1926, it would not have been expected that she would, by her 80th birthday tomorrow, have served as Queen Elizabeth II for nearly 55 years, presiding over the transformation of Empire to Commonwealth with skill and diplomacy, over five decades of public life with elegance and dignity, and over the serial fiascos of her children's unruly lives with long-suffering patience. In many ways, the Queen greets her 80th as one animated by the disciplines and virtues of another -- now apparently lost -- age. Certainly her heir has not followed in her footsteps, to the great detriment of the Royal Family and the monarchy itself.
Born the same month in Chicago was Hugh Marston Hefner, an ordinary boy born into an ordinary family, who would, in time, preside over a vast pornography and commercial empire. He marked his 80th birthday (April 9) in Hefner style -- a grand pajama party in which the girls were cheap and the self-congratulation lavish. Respectable news outlets covered Hefner's birthday in, well, respectable fashion.
And why not? The stigma of pornography is much diminished. Hefner has made money in six decades. He has remained famous at the same time, an even more remarkable achievement in a celebrity-centred culture. And, above all, Hefner is just about the most influential cultural figure of the last 55 years -- far more influential than the Queen Regnant herself.
That their birthdays fall 12 days apart is a just a coincidence. But their long, public lives frame the great cultural change of the postwar period. The essence of being a hereditary monarch is that one is born to certain duties, alongside of which are certain privileges. The Playboy philosophy, on the other hand, is that one is born with certain appetites, and the goal of life is to achieve enough privilege that they may be indulged, unrestrained by duties of any kind. The monarchy may reign, but it is the Playboy philosophy that rules.
The grandiose term "Playboy philosophy" was coined by Hefner himself, who has always fancied himself something more than a savvy peddler of smut. The Playboy philosophy, written in the early 1960s, is an extended (150,000 words) riff on the findings of Alfred Kinsey, the now-discredited but massively influential sex researcher. Hefner's argument was that the sexual appetite was unruly (something one does not need Kinsey to confirm) and therefore should not be subject to rules, lest the personality be suffocated by repression. The Playboy philosophy argued that the uninhibited libido was the path of personal liberation.
That ran directly counter to the more traditional wisdom that the task of civilization was precisely to domesticate the appetites, so that the sexual energies of men in particular would be channeled toward marriage and children, upon which the future of a free and virtuous society depends.
The older wisdom disdained the playboy as just that -- one who played liked a boy instead of assuming the responsibilities of a man. Hefner's philosophy was to recast the playboy not as a dissolute cad, but a refined sophisticate.
"What is a Playboy?" Hefner asked. "Is he simply a wastrel, a ne'er-do-well, a fashionable bum? Far from it: He can be a sharp-minded young business executive, a worker in the arts, a university professor, an architect or engineer. He can be many things, providing he possesses a certain point of view. He must see life not as a vale of tears but as a happy time; he must take joy in his work, without regarding it as the end and all of living; he must be an alert man, an aware man, a man of taste, a man sensitive to pleasure, a man who -- without acquiring the stigma of the voluptuary or dilettante -- can live life to the hilt. This is the sort of man we mean when we use the word playboy."
Taste. Pleasure. To the hilt. Nothing about sacrifice, or endurance, or anything oriented to another. And it was, and remains, Hefner's style not to say too much about the most relevant other: the women -- or playmates, or bunnies. Like most poor philosophers, Hefner uses language mischievously. At the moment, he has a reality TV show featuring his three "girlfriends," though most men who put their multiple sleeping partners on the payroll are not considered "boyfriends."
That's the difficult bit about the Playboy philosophy -- the unrestrained male appetite requires a certain bit of servicing. The man who enjoys a nude layout alongside his book reviews and feature profiles requires somewhere a naked girl to do the posing. So Hefner devoted his energies and money to mainstreaming the porn industry. The married man suffocated in his marriage and seeking a little play on the side needs to be free of his wife. So Hefner's philosophy championed easy divorce. And above all, the playboy needs to be protected from the threat posed by the child, so Hefner was zealous in promoting easy contraception and abortion. The explanation for why feminists let Hefner off so lightly is to be found in his longstanding generosity to the abortion industry.
The Playboy philosophy, much like its photographers, airbrushes out the blemishes. Hefner never mentions, and is rarely asked, about the role of his philosophy in creating a society of disposable marriages, wives and children. The link between pornography and sexual abuse and assault is unremarked. The staggering rebellion of nature against the playboy's promiscuous practices, measured in the astonishing spread of sexually transmitted diseases, is kept discreetly out of sight, like an ugly girl who shows up at Hefner's mansion.
The detritus left in the wake of the Playboy philosophy is most evident in the lives of those at the margins -- the poor single mothers who have been abandoned by the men in their lives; the girls enticed into the seedy world of pornography, where walking the street is a more likely outcome than strolling the corridors of the Playboy Mansion; the children who have learned that their needs are secondary to the sophisticated needs of their playboy fathers. Yet the damage of the Playboy philosophy is not limited to those on the margins; it touches all strata of society -- including the Royal Family.
It is a strange fact that the Queen would have been spared most of the trauma of her long reign if her children had taken more seriously their marital and family duties. The monarchy has not been assaulted from great forces without, but from something like the Playboy philosophy from within.
If the Prince of Wales had taken more seriously his duty to marry, rather than prolong his extended adolescence throughout the 1970s, he would have married Camilla thirty years ago and saved himself, and his future subjects, much grief. Even less, if he had simply kept his marriage vows to the Princess of Wales, he would not have humiliated and abased himself as he did. Instead, he ended up as all old playboys do -- whining about how difficult it was for him to conform to his duties. His indulgent behaviour seems to have made its mark; last week the British press reported that Prince Harry was the "first royal" to visit a strip club. There was no comment from the Prince of Wales. What would he say?
Two long lives, utterly different, but archetypes for the cultural choices made these past generations. The playboy is above all indulgent, moved only by his own appetites. The prince is supposed to be different, putting the good of the realm above his own inclinations. A playboy prince is, consequently, an impossibility. At one time, when the young Queen took her coronation oath, that was understood.
© National Post 2006
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